Photo: Dr. Dennis Pogue, archaeologist , building conservator, and long-time director of preservation at Mount Vernon, is shown investigating the south porch on the 1755-56 Owner House at Clermont, identifying the earlier 1770 version of the porch built by Edward Snickers when he bought it, and who later enlarged it in 1777 to its present size and appearance, including its colonnettes and rails. Snickers (Snicker's Gap at Rt. 7, Snickersville/Bluemont), who had the ferry and mills at the Shenandoah and was a grain and flour hauler, was a friend of George Washington's, (who surveyed Clermont in 1750) and provided supplies and transport for him in the French and Indian War and was a commissary and paymaster to the American army during the Revolution. His son William served, and it was to him that Edward gave the use of Clermont in 1793 when William returned from service (and to whom Edward left it at his death in 1790). Edward's wife Elizabeth died at Clermont in 1779 and may be buried in the farm's "Snicker's Graveyard", as may he. No one actually knows where either one of them is buried. It was William Snickers who sold Clermont to Dawson McCormick in 1819, whose great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth Williams gave it at her death in 2004, 185 years later, to the Virginia Dept. of Historic Resources. Credit: The Clermont Foundation
PRESERVATION AT CLERMONT
Why was Clermont Preserved as an Historic Site and What Does "Preservation" Actually Mean?
Why was Elizabeth Williams, the last private owner of Clermont and great-great-granddaughter of the man who bought it in 1819, so determined to preserve its historic land and buildings? And why did the Commonwealth of Virginia accept her gift and agree to its preservation?
Her situation near the end of her life (2004) was complicated. She had a terminal disease, she had no children, her family had owned the farm for over 180 years, she continued her family's long interest in the farm's history (having assembled the extensive family archives and written its history), and, there was at the time a boom in land prices which incentivized future development and destruction of the site, which is on the edge of the county seat.
A Great Rarity
Elizabeth knew she owned a great rarity: a relatively intact "cultural landscape" (the land plus the buildings that were designed for and went with it, reflecting the lives of those who lived and worked there). It had already been preserved for 250 years, but was now at the edge of Berryville, the county seat and explicitly threatened by local development both from public (roads, schools, industrial park) and private (housing, businesses) sources. That rarity included:
1. A site with an assemblage of original plantation buildings from 1755-1857, including the oldest house in Clarke County, plus significant archaeological resources.
2. A site still holding its original 353-acre land grant from Lord Fairfax, surveyed in 1750 by a then 18-year old George Washington later to be the Revolution's Commander-in-Chief and the first US President. Washington laid the foundations of his career in this area of the Virginia backcountry and developed his network of friends, including several owners of Clermont, people who would later be his associates before and during the Revolution.
3. A site subsequently owned by people who contributed to the founding and development of a free nation under the rule of law in successive periods from the 1750's to the 1990's, and,
4. A site of conscience where for 110 years those owners, in the American paradox, committed a moral crime: they kept African men, women, and children enslaved for life under degrading conditions and physical threat, forcing them to build the buildings and conduct an industrial-style agricultural operation for the owners' sole profit. A part of the farm was purchased in 1870 by freed people, now American citizens, who built homes for themselves as well as schools, churches, and businesses in their own resilient community, Josephine City, now a part of Berryville.
This single site illustrates the development of the social, economic, agricultural, and military history of the British Chesapeake colonies and then of the United States for over two centuries. Clermont's ability to put people literally "in touch" with their colonial and American history, its illustrative value, and the research being done on the site, make it a place important to keep.
Preserved by Virginia's Department of Historic Resources as a working farm and education/research site also means that it is still doing things that are of value to the the every-day life of the community of which it has been a part for over 270 years. It continues to produce agricultural products as part of the county's agricultural base, purchases goods and services, and provides employment. It now also provides educational and information services via partnerships with the public schools, the Virginia Cooperative Extension, and other regional organizations.
What Does Preservation Actually Mean?
Under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, administered by the Secretary of the Interior and National Park Service (and in Virginia by the Dept. of Historic Resources, also the owner of Clermont), there are four different "Modes of Treatment", or approaches, to preserving historic sites or buildings, depending on their condition and intended use:
"Preservation" (preserving all layers, all periods, of an historic building or site, up to some cut-off date )
"Restoration" (returning an historic building or site to a specific point in time, such as Mount Vernon)
"Reconstruction" (from new, like the Capitol at Williamsburg, using archaeological or documentary evidence)
"Rehabilitation" (for modern adaptive re-use, such as the 1849 Taylor Hotel on Winchester, VA's walking mall (condos).
No one of these four is "better" than another. It is a matter of the purpose an individual or organizational owner wants to use the building or site for, of any zoning, easement, or other legal restrictions, AND, of what the best future the building or site may realistically have for continued existence, as well as of what benefit its continued existence may bring to people or communities who have and may continue to live with it.
What Mode of Treatment is Clermont in and how does that relate to the other Approaches?
Since it is the entire sweep and the continuity of Clermont's history which makes it valuable as an historic resource (not some particular point in time or highlighted individual), "Preservation" is the mode of treatment chosen under the Secretary's Standards for the 360-acre site and its buildings. This has consequences for how the buildings and landscape look, and how they are used today, which potentially differentiates Clermont from other historic sites you might visit. The buildings are mostly empty, and their fabric is in some places open to view, either because of historic damage or investigations into the buildings for research and documentation purposes which visitors can also share. You can examine a hand-made lath nail from 1794 and see the hair in the base plaster coat. In some cases, the final 20th century finishes are peeling and earlier historic finishes are visible. Nothing has been demolished or finishes changed to "restore" the buildings to an earlier state in their history or to a more "polished" condition. Whether in the Slave House or the Owner House, every stage of the building's use and development is visible or documented. The landscape continues to be farmed with crops and animals, but with modern equipment, technology, and best practices, These include conservation measures which protect soil and water quality and promote wildlife..
The construction of the extant buildings and major changes date from 1755 to 1971. Changes and renovations were carried out until the death of the last private owner, Elizabeth Williams, in 2004, whereupon the property was transferred to the Virginia Dept. of Historic Resources (DHR). In the buildings, all "layers" from all periods between 1755 and 2004 are preserved, including an attic apartment only partially complete at the last owner's death. Archaeological resources in the ground receive similar protection (ground disturbance requires state permits and professional supervision) but extends back many millennia before European occupation. The buildings, in each of their layers (like the surrounding ground), contain enormous amounts of valuable information about the history of the site, as well as about the lives of the people who lived there, The embedded information also allows comparison of how the construction technology and material culture at Clermont relate contextually to other historic sites, regions, and cultural traditions. No parts of the buildings, and no whole layers (plaster wallpaper, paint) have been demolished or removed. to make the buildings more authentic to some particular date in their overall history.
No structural members are removed except in case of total failure, and even then, the failed member (wall log, stud, joist, rafter, nailer, sill plate) is left in place if possible for future research and a new working member positioned near it. If the failed component cannot be kept in position, it is removed, catalogued, and placed in an archive of architectural salvage. Like the pages of a complete book, every building component (even those which have failed) and every layer of paint or whitewash literally has a story to tell about all the people of Clermont and their circumstances, as well as having quantities of scientific data embedded in it. Some of this data we can read today and some must be preserved for future technologies and experts to decipher. All the pages need to be preserved to complete the story. There are many techniques for reading these stories and data.
One example would be examination of the "nailers", These are the boards running across the tops of the roof rafters to which the wooden shingles were (and are) nailed. Many of the nailers date to the original roof on a building. The number and location of nail holes tell what kind of roofing materials were used in every period of the roof's history (over 270 years on the original house), depending on the building everything from 3-foot long side-lapped wooden shingles to 18-inch vertically-lapped (modern style) shingles. The nail holes in them can be dated approximately by shape and size, and empty holes record the number of times the roof was re-shingled. In some cases, nailers were re-used pieces of wood from other places in the building. In one instance, this made a difference in dating some changes to the 1823 Slave Quarter. In another, a piece of chair rail removed when paneling was installed, and later re-used as a roof nailer, provides significant evidence of the earliest interior decoration in 1756 of the Owner House (the remaining traces of paint on the chair-rail/nailer matching the earliest paint in a room in that building).
Another example would be the dating of wooden structural members in the buildings by dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) . This involves taking multiple core samples and comparing the individual annual tree-rings in the cores to dated historical core samples of the same species of trees from the same geographical region. This gives the felling date of the tree to the year and season, and based on standard construction procedures (winter felling, next summer construction), infers construction dates. Among other stories, dendrochronology revealed the interventions of two brides, one in the 1790's and one in the 1840's, who made decisive changes in the Owner House at Clermont.
A final example would be paint analysis, This technology used in an 18th century room can record a dozen or more layers of paint starting with the original, providing for each layer a microscopic analysis of color, granularity, and chemical composition, as well as approximate dates based on multiple factors. This technique was successful even on a mantelpiece professionally-stripped of its paint in the 20th century. The fancy original paint scheme of the 1788 Dining room in the Owner House corroborated other indicators of William Snickers' social aspirations, as well as providing more detail about the Slave Quarter and other spaces.